How To Answer Tricky Grant Application Questions

You can make anything sexy!

You can make anything sexy!

I was just having a coffee with a colleague to go over some hard-to-answer grant questions.

Here’s what we came up with!

  1. How do you describe funding needs when all you need are salaries?

Don’t overthink this one! If you have something UNsexy that needs funding, then be sure to focus on the outcome and list the boring specifics later.

Instead of this: We are applying for an assistant veterinarian’s salary to de-worm the guide dogs needed for our youth autism program.

Try this: Children with severe autism will experience increased comfort and safety from the guide dog that you fund. The costs include…all the boring things we don’t need to lead with…

  1. How do you use specific impact examples without ending up with a restricted donation?

Don’t overthink this either! You definitely want to give specific examples of what the requested amount would accomplish – it’s more powerful. But watch your language to keep the funding unrestricted.

Instead of this: $500 would fund 50 meals for homeless people.

Try this: A gift of $500 would help us in so many ways, for example, this amount would feed 50 homeless people.

  1. What do you say when they ask you about other funders?

This is a confusing one. They don’t want to be the only funder in the ring, but we’re often not able to share details of other funders until well after they’re confirmed. And if we had a million other funders for the same project, we wouldn’t be filling out this bloody grant application in the first place, would we??

Try this: Name ongoing funders you already have in place, but not necessarily for the project needing funding. If they need funders related to the project, then list others you have approached and mention that it is confidential information and that they aren’t confirmed yet. You may also want to note that the other funders are waiting to hear on the status of the current application (if that’s the case).

  1. What do you write when they only offer one-time funding and want to know how you will sustain the program afterwards?

Grrr. This is my least-favourite question. In my dream world I’d write this: “If we get one-time funding for this project, then we’ll just start from zero again next year like we have every bloody year since the charity started!”

But don’t say that.

Try this: We have a 10-year history (or whatever) of raising a minimum of $X/year. We will work to increase our other annual giving channels to meet the increased funding needs.

  1. How do you answer the question “If you receive less than you’re asking for, how will you fund the remainder”?

This is very close in content to question 4 and I’ll usually use the same wording, just tweaked a bit. Or I might mention that there are other prospective funders in play who we would ask to step up.

Above all, don’t forget to call or email the funder to discuss your ideas BEFORE applying (unless they specifically say not to). You’ll get a chance to find out exactly what to apply for, what donation range they want, and you’ll be relationship building right from the start.

Need more? Check my previous post “How to Increase Your Odds For a Successful Grant.


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Don’t Do Another Special Event! (except this one)


Stay classy fundraisers!

Galas and runs and breakfasts and ice buckets and fashion shows…

I am 47 for Pete’s sake! I’m looking for events that can convert participants into donors instead of just sucking the life out of me and my team.

Events are a great way to raise funds for most charities, but some make the mistake of piling on too many in a given year and stealing staff time from developing major gifts. And if you still don’t believe that major gifts are the Holy Grail, then start following bloggers like Gail Perry (@GailPerrync).

So here’s the exception: A classy cultivation event for your top donors and prospects that takes no time to organize and actually allows you to interact with the donors in a meaningful way. I model mine on the classic cinq a sept – a social gathering between 5pm and 7pm with a glass of wine and non-dinner-ruining snacks.

This is the Quebec version by the way. The original French cinq a sept involves sex with your mistress. And honestly, you can sometimes take “donor-centric” too far.

Organizing it in 4 steps: 

Do this right and you can get away with a 6-week timeline and ZERO dollar budget.

  1. Identify a host with a nice house, preferably a donor or board member. 99% of the time they’ll volunteer to pay for the wine and cheese without being asked. You don’t need much for a two-hour event.
  2. Invite key donors and prospects and the connectors who know them. Aim for 20-50 people and get enough rsvps to cover the 10-15% who will cancel last-minute or no-show. Tell them it’s an awareness event only, with no ask, otherwise they’ll wonder what’s coming.
  3. Have a brief presentation on something super-interesting from one of your frontline staff (20 mins max). Start with a 2-minute intro by a senior staffer and a thank you to the host. No other speeches –  people get tired standing around with their empty wine glass.* Let the guests know you’ll follow up for their feedback over the next week or two.
  4. Post-event: gather notes from staff and connectors on who they talked to and what level of interest the guests showed. Follow up with a call or email to each guest and an appropriate next step.**

Don’t stress out if the first event doesn’t go exactly as desired. Every charity has its own vibe and you might need that first event to see what works best for you. Have fun!


* Here’s your schedule: 5:00-5:40, gather and mingle; 5:40-6-ish, speech; rest of the eve is left for mingling.

** “Next step?” If the guest is super-important, you may already have a cultivation strategy in place with different touch points. For the others, follow up and ask them what they thought and whether they’d like more information. Invite them to meet to get their opinion on other ways to build awareness for your charity (maybe they’ll host the next event). Let them know when you’ll be in touch next.

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Great donor stewardship videos – 3 ways

Love your donors

Love your donors

Ooo, this is SO fun and easy! There is NOTHING more important to donor relations than stewardship – the information the donor gets from you after making a gift.



What we want to do in stewarding our donors is to let them know that they made the right decision and that their funding caused the positive impact we told them it would.

We can deliver this kind of information through newsletters, reports or face-to-face meetings. The first two are industry standards, but newsletters are rarely donor-centric and reports are rarely interesting.  In-person meetings would be amazing, but are limited by the amount of time it would take to visit everyone.

So how do you achieve customized, personalized stewardship? Through the miracle of video!

Here are three examples to inspire your team.

  1. Cheap and easy: example 1 
  • Find a key spokesperson, ideally a front-line mission worker like the vet at an animal shelter.
  • Craft a short update they can deliver in two minutes.
  • Point your phone at them in a brightly lit area and hit “record.”
  • Upload it and send to your donors.
  1. A bit more sophisticated: example 2 
  • Work with a marketing firm to create a story line.
  • Use a professional video crew to film and edit your video with real lighting and sound.
  • If you don’t have a budget, reach out to communications firms you’ve worked with before and request a pro bono job. Or try advertising for a freebie on social media.
  1. The gold standard: example 3 
  • Break open the piggy bank for original music and high production values.
  • Get a professional production company involved and include starring roles for the donors themselves.
  • Upload to your Youtube page and share on social media…because it’s that good.

Bottom line? Video gives you everything – personal connection, customization, visuals, audio, smell-o-vision… so jump in there!


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DIY Professional Development for Your Fundraising Team

Get busy!

Get busy!

If your NGO is anything like mine, you either never had much money for professional development, or it dried up during the last economic downturn and never came back. Either way, there’s one sexy solution: Do It Yourself!

Here are four topics that will educate your team and give them a chance to show off share their knowledge with the rest of the group.



  1. Stewardship – my favourite topic! Start by asking your team to send you the most creative stewardship ideas they have ever heard of. Then get the team together, review the stewardship you’re doing, and start a discussion on new things the team could try. Talk about what you do with email, mail, video, on visits and at events. Get the colleagues who submitted samples to describe them to everyone else.

Bonus points: Include communications, marketing and frontline programs staff. They will eat it up AND bring great ideas of their own!

  1. Tricky topics – like ethics or administrative expenses. For ethics, start the same way by gathering sample stories from colleagues, or find some doozies online. Or for the “overhead” discussion, pop some popcorn and watch Dan Pallotta’s TED talk. Discuss!

Bonus points: Just always have food at these things and maybe even find a different space to have the conversation than your usual meeting room. It gets the creative flow flowing.

  1. Donor motivation. That’s right, go for the big topics to get your WHOLE team thinking more broadly about their work than just “I’ve got to update the database with the gala rsvps by Tuesday!” Try watching a video like The Science of Persuasion and have the staff talk about whether you’re using these motivators well and how you could up your game.

Bonus points: Get some key leadership volunteers in for this one – really, any of these could precede an all-staff, management or board meeting.

  1. Share a webinar or conference session. Everyone shares their slide decks these days, so why not grab one from your favourite session at that last fundraising conference and run it for the rest of the team you couldn’t afford to send? Practice a bit first, enlist in-house experts to co-present with you, and look up any missing information so you can put on a smooth show.

Bonus points: When your boss sees you sharing what you learned, it’ll pave the way for more spending on pro-d. Yum.

You’re welcome!

~ Siobhan : )


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Home for the Holidays: The Best Time to Book Donor Visits

Don't forget to visit!

Don’t forget to visit!

I have worked at a bunch of NGOs that didn’t know this simple trick: Summer and Winter holiday seasons are an excellent time to snag a visit with hard-to-reach donors.

The time frame? December up to Christmas, late July and the month of August.

Christmas is a typical lost opportunity for visits. We’re in a mad rush to get the gifts in and are usually circling the mail carrier or our broker’s office in search of the year-end gifts we have been confirming throughout the fall. But wait – don’t mug that postal worker! Put down your spreadsheet, book some face-to-face visits and head out the door!

Don’t listen to your boss if she protests that people are “spending time with their families” or are “too busy to meet.” People are sometimes trying to AVOID the Christmas rush and lunatic relatives and are more than happy to make some time to talk about their philanthropy. Bonus points if you reach out to donors that do not celebrate Christmas and are probably waiting for the whole thing to just blow over.

Late summer’s great too. I had a key volunteer who used to fight me on this one, even though she herself was a community leader who stayed in town for most of June/July/August.

To prove her wrong, I grabbed my favourite door-opener and met with 10 new prospects between August 1st and Labour Day. Same story: prominent and busy major gift donor types are chained to their desks pretty much all the time. You don’t get to the top of your game by taking three months of vacation – just ask Warren Buffet. Only the super-elite, semi-retired ones are out of reach, golfing in Cabo. The rest are actually experiencing some catch-up time as their offices slow down to accommodate vacations.

Try it and see if it works for you too. Thanks for reading!

Siobhan : )

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A User’s Guide to Working With Fundraising Volunteers

Be the Hammer!

Be the Hammer!

I was once referred to by a volunteer as “The Velvet Hammer” in reference to the fundraising visits we had done together while I worked for United Way. We laughed pretty hard at that choice description and there was no mistaking the compliment he intended.

If your volunteer relationships sound like this, stop reading and go get a Snickers bar. If your relationships could use some work, read on.

I specialize in major gifts and I need high-profile corporate and community leaders on visits where I’m asking for five- and six-figure donations. But we all know that high-profile volunteers can also be high-maintenance. Managing their schedules, getting them to book visits and briefing them for the meetings can sometimes seem like too much trouble – until we remember that people are more likely to give when asked by their peers (not by a pesky but well-meaning fundraiser).

So try these tips to manage that awesome CEO who said she’d help you “open some doors.”

1.  Connect with your volunteer on LinkedIn to explore potential prospects. Book her for a meeting to discuss them and get her to think of others. Bring her a list of any people you’ve been trying to connect with to see if she knows them. Tip: NEVER do this with a group (like your board). People like to brag about who they know and you’ll find the follow-through is weak as a result.

2.  Select three top prospects from the meeting based on linkage, ability and interest and email these back to your volunteer. Include any history they may have with your organization. Script an email she can send to each, telling them she’s volunteering to spread the word about the organization’s mission, and asking for a brief meeting. Tip: Enter these prospects on the volunteer’s profile in your database.

3.  Nag her again in two weeks, because I have only known two volunteers in my 15 years of fundraising who did their calls without being gently nagged. Tip: Task the nagging in Outlook, along with the names of the prospects, for easy reference.

4.  Get your volunteer to loop you in to book the meeting once the prospect agrees. You’ll attend with your volunteer, ideally at the prospect’s office. Tip: No office? Do a café. The meeting isn’t confidential and you are not asking for a gift on this “first date.”

5.  One week prior to the meeting, send a briefing note to your volunteer (1 page max, she’s busy!). Tip: Include current info on your prospect and his company, giving history and volunteer work.

6.  At the meeting, allow the volunteer and prospect to have some small talk, then ask him if he’s heard about your charity. Don’t do a big presentation. Start a conversation with a few words about what your organization does. Ask the prospect what kinds of community initiatives he’s involved with. He’ll tell you everything you want to know. Tip: Don’t bring any materials. They’re a distracting crutch and you’re supposed to be having an informal meeting. If he wants to see the annual report or something else, then that gives you a nice little follow up!

7.  Thank both parties by email afterwards. Be sure to let the volunteer know what happens as the relationship progresses with the new prospect. Tip: If the prospect is older or well-known in the community, do a hand-written thank you instead.

Always be positive, organized and confident with your volunteers and their trust – and willingness to prospect – will grow steadily. It’s simple once you get in the swing of it. Good luck!




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3 Games to Teach Your Board About Fundraising

imagesEAN1FISXRead this if:

• Your board, staff or volunteers don’t like, understand or believe in fundraising.

• They get it, but they’re a bit afraid or maybe even nauseated by it.

• They get it, but don’t think anyone else gets it.

• They like games.



This game is great for de-bunking misconceptions in a non-confrontational way and will get your team talking, guaranteed!

1. Read them a list of questions on the fundraising and non-profit sector one by one and make them write down their answers (see below for my top picks). Tell them that no-one will know all the answers, but in the spirit of this game they MUST make a guess for every question.

2. Once you’ve gone through all the questions, read them again and ask participants to shout out their answers. Using numeric answers keeps this quick and easy. Note the range of numbers, then move on to the next question.

3. Wait until you’ve got a good bunch of guesses written down for each question before you reveal the Real Answers.


This game will get your team to understand the importance of talking about philanthropy and will de-bunk the myth that only rich people are generous donors.

1. Make them write down (anonymously) the most they’ve ever given to charity in a single year. It needs to be cash, not things or services. It can include giving money to homeless people and other unreceiptable gifts. Don’t worry about absolute accuracy, just get them to make their best guess about their most generous year of giving. If it’s $0, then write $0.

2. Make sure there are no names on the papers and pass them to someone to add up the total. Don’t let them reveal the number yet.

3. Ask the room to think about what everyone else’s number might be. Then ask them to guess at what the total for the whole group would add up to. You’ll get a wide range of numbers for this, so best to write them all on a whiteboard like in the previous game.

4. Do the reveal and wait for the reaction! I have done this game dozens of times and there were only two occasions where the group over-estimated their total giving.

I love the reaction and conversation that this game inspires. Typically, the team ends up with a much better appreciation of how generous we really are. It’s fun to talk about WHY we think we aren’t as generous as we are. Is it cultural? Politeness? Shyness? Discuss!


A classic game show adds fun to sobering statistics about the challenges of fundraising. They need to know what we’re up against and why we need their buy-in and help.

1. Cut your group into two teams and give them a “buzzer” to use, Jeopardy style.

2. Create a slide deck with one question per slide, alternating with the answers. Questions could include the number of competing charities in your area, percentage of donor churn, number of appeals the average person sees – get them thinking!

3. Play Jeopardy!

My favourite questions for Game #1

1. What’s the value of the charitable sector in your country?

2. What’s the percentage of the population who volunteer annually?

3. The percentage who make a donation?

4. How many people are employed by the charitable sector?

5. How many charities do you think there are in the country?

In Canada, you can find these kinds of statistics here:

Thanks for reading and I hope you have fun with some of these! Siobhan

P.S. If you’d like the Canadian answers to game 1, just email me at

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Stewarding Donors with Your Programs Staff


Increase Your Impact!

Involving non-fundraising staff in donor stewardship is peachy. So let’s think about who to take on that next donor visit and how to make them successful!

In the past, I was guilty of defaulting to the chiefs. I’d automatically bring along a board member, maybe even the chair or my CEO.

But if donor stewardship is about showing people the impact of their gift, then why not go straight to the source and bring along a person who actually delivers your programs? They might not be as polished as the CEO, but I bet they’ll be more interesting – mainly because they are so much closer to the work. They can likely talk about your mission from a first-hand-delivery point of view, with more passion than fundraising or management staff would have.

Don’t get me wrong – I know this can backfire. I have taken intelligent, amazing and personable programs staff to donor meetings and then watched as they unleashed a torrent of verbal diarrhea. After seeing this happen a couple of times, I realized they were reacting to the pressure of being “on stage” and felt they had to talk talk talk.

Here’s how to prep your program colleagues for success.

  1. Book them for an informal briefing a couple of days before the donor meeting.
  2. Tell them about the donor: how much they’ve given, what their interests are, and above all, what kind of personality they have.
  3. Emphasize more than once that the visit is informal and that we’re not going to ask for money.
  4. Do a bit of a role play. The fundraiser should start, as she has the relationship. Then let the donor talk, then cue up the program person.
  5. Have a signal for your colleague to let them know when they’ve said enough on a given topic. Let them know this is necessary because it is SO important to let the donor talk too. (I had a system with one scientist where I’d put my pen down on the table. He stopped so abruptly the first time we did it, it was like someone had punched him in the neck. We improved over time.)
  6. Figure out a “leave.” What’s the follow up we will offer when we close the meeting? An advance look at a pending report? A promise to send along an event invitation? Make sure it’s never just “goodbye.”
  7. Write a thank you for your program colleague to send from her email address (she can cc you) encouraging the donor to get in touch directly with any questions or comments. This creates a nice value add where you’re giving your best supporters exclusive access to the change-makers of the organization.

And don’t forget to tell your colleagues why this is so important. At the end of it all, we are looking to secure more funds for their work!

No organization can boast 100% retention and we all know that the competition is just as busy trying to catch our donors’ attention as we are. Including your programs people in the stewardship process is great for business and, if you prep them well, they’ll have a blast.

Thanks for reading!

Siobhan : )

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Bullsh*t Bingo – Part 6

Only Jean Luc should use this word!

Only Jean Luc should use this word!

Another list of words and phrases to AVOID in your grants, proposals and donor communications. You’re very welcome!



As in, “we need a new narrative for our mission.”

Bleck! Don’t yuck-up a concept as simple as representing what you do with a good story. When I hear “narrative,” it sounds like tobacco lobbyists looking for a new way to market cigarettes. Speak plainly people. What we mean here is more like “telling the story of what we do.”



Please email me immediately if you know what this word means, because most people don’t have a clue. Try to avoid words that Try Too Hard. I know funders who would burn your grant application if they saw this kind of vocab.



I know what you’re thinking – this one’s not toooo bad. But come on. How often do you (un-ironically) use this word in your everyday speech? Exactly.

This is the schmoopy NGO word used when you want to talk about building relationships and involving people in what you do.

Alien example: “This event will help us engage our stakeholders.”

Human translation: “This event will help us build relationships with our supporters and community.”


Wondering what other words made the list? Take a trip through the archives!

Siobhan : )

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Donor Stewardship through Involvement


A gift is just the start!

You have probably heard the term “ladder of engagement” before. It is a very sophisticated way to steward major donors. I often experience thinking in the real world that runs against the idea of getting a donor more involved. Some charity managers worry about “bothering” donors too much. Some prefer to lay low and not rock the boat, so as not to jeopardize the gift in any way. Then they come blazing back a year later with a re-ask, after months of almost no contact. If your charity is guilty of this, try your best to talk them out of it!

It may seem counter-intuitive to continue to ask the donor to do things after she’s already made a big gift, but in fact it works to solidify her commitment to your organization. Google “ladder of engagement” and you’ll get a million samples. One I found on uses the following terms, described here in ascending order of awesomeness.

“Spreaders” – This is the stage where the donor really starts trusting your organization. You’ve probably done some great stewardship of her gift(s) and won her trust and loyalty. At this point, you might ask her to introduce you to other generous, like-minded people she knows that may be prospects for your organization. Maybe the donor is doing this already! It makes for an excellent conversational topic at your next meeting.

“Evangelists” – The evangelist stage is where the donor may begin to make asks on your behalf. She may become an integral part of the development team or just an occasional participant in key meetings. She is probably already talking you up to friends and colleagues and has turned into an informal ambassador for your organization and its mission. Yay!

“Instigators” – You’re probably getting the hang of the ladder now. This stage is really the point when the donor is so connected that she may become involved in operational initiatives. She may suggest and lead a special campaign. She may work as a leadership volunteer or even join the board as a director or member of a committee.

Not every donor will get all the way to the top of the ladder, and we’re not just talking about major gift donors here either! However, it should be the fundraiser’s goal to at least explore the possibility that they may want to move past the “money” stage. In this way, I hope you can see that there’s much more potential to stewarding a donor than just sending an annual report each year.

Stanley Weinstein says it well in his book “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management.”

“The greatest donor benefit is being asked to serve. Donors feel honoured and privileged to be asked to play a leadership role in the organization. Not everyone can be asked to serve on the board, but most major donors can be offered an appropriate volunteer opportunity. They may say no, but they will be flattered.”




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